February 4, 2017

Carpenters Revisited: A Fresh Look at Close to You

Close to You- It was a disc to build a dream on. Honestly, that's certainly a sugary way to describe such a landmark album, Carpenters or otherwise, but truth told, I couldn't help myself. This amazing album from two relative newcomers launched their time in the public eye and their music into the heart of America, then the world. Close to You was also a disc to build a career on. Soon enough, fans would recognize Karen Carpenter as the premier vocalist of her generation. It would take a bit longer for folks to recognize brother Richard's incredible gift as musical genius, but it would happen.  

Today is 34 years since Karen's untimely passing. Has it really been that long? 

Thankfully, it seems every new generation discovers the music of Karen and Richard, continuing their well deserved legacy. Instead of focusing on the too-oft remembered details surrounding her death, I thought it was more than appropriate to continue this new series by celebrating the album that put them on the charts for good.

Earlier last year, I explained the reasons I had decided to take a fresh look at the music of the duo one album at a time. Previously, I had reviewed each album in chronological order. Yet, as time has passed, I wanted to revisit their musical output, beginning with Ticket to Ride. (Read it here.) It turned into a different project, one I didn't entirely expect: a look at sunny, Orange County, California in the 70's and 80's as well as a look into my personal life. 


As I write this new review, the album that made me a life-long fan is playing in my earphones. It is coming close to being 50 years old, yet it sounds as fresh to me as the day I first heard it. I'm pleased to go back and give this record a lengthier review more in line with the impact it made. To understand the effect of their music in me, you have to understand a bit of my story, so please forgive the extended opening.

Our family was certainly not typical. As with Harold and Agnes Carpenter, my family left the East Coast (in our case Massachusetts), for a better life in California. My father was a hard worker and a bright man. He worked several jobs to make ends meet, always hopeful that the next job would be the one that would get us away from a cycle of struggle. 

My Dad and Mom had married very quickly at 18 and 16, respectively, after discovering she was pregnant with me. My sister came less than two years later. Mom was a hair dresser as it was called back then. She was also a lover of the sun and the beach. It seemed she might have been destined to live in California.

My Dad's mom lived with us as she was a young widow left with my dad and his younger sister to care for at the tender age of 39. She was a full blooded Italian woman who worked hard and cared for us. She never remarried, claiming my Irish grandfather was the only love of her life. Rather than an arranged marriage as was the custom, they eloped. Back in the day, this was partially because an Italian woman marrying an Irish man was as distasteful to her family and society as it would have been for a black man to marry a white woman in the South during the Civil War. My Nona loved us dearly, and the sentiment was mutual. It was through her love for variety special television (Dinah Shore and Mike Douglas) that I was introduced to some classic musical artists. Some of my happiest memories as a child were with her in our home. 

My father thought he had escaped the in-laws and the family at large, but as he sadly soon discovered, they would also be captivated by California and the chance for something new. They moved shortly after my parents did. I dearly loved this grandmother, just as much as the other. Interestingly, both grandmothers grew up in the same general area and became (and stayed) best friends for all of their lives. Having them close by played a substantial role in my interests, especially my love for music.

My Memere was fully French Canadian and another great cook. (Even though things were hard for us for many years, between my grandmothers, I was always surrounded by incredible food!) She had a second grade education, as her mother had died that year. As the oldest child, my grandmother left school to take care of her younger siblings while her father worked. She was a strong and deeply religious woman who loved Jesus and was pleased to serve her family as a part of honoring Him.

Let me pull this all together now. This wonderful grandmother married a full- blooded Italian man. They had four daughters, my mom being the oldest. My grandfather was a frustrated drummer, giving up life on the road for his family and had once played with a very young Ella Fitzgerald at the beginning of her career. So he said. Nonetheless, I was there all the time as they lived very close to us, so the great music from the American Songbook of the 30's, 40's, and 50's was always on the stereo. Between all the members of my family, I became very aware of the music from many decades. Everyone from Dean Martin (a fellow Italian who my Nona adored) to The Andrews Sisters and Nat King Cole. Toss in a love of Motown from my teenaged aunts, American Bandstand from my Mom, and love of rock and roll from my Dad, you could say music was a big part of my life from an early age.

Surprisingly, I remembered hearing Close to You 
but not attributing it to the same group
who created the next single!

Fast forward to 1970. You can imagine my complete surprise when I heard "We've Only Just Begun" on the school bus radio. (Jordan Intermediate School, in case my kids reading this are curious.) It was just so totally different than anything else being played or anything I had heard at home. Not that it was a ballad, but it was a ballad with that truly unexpected, beautiful, incredible voice. I just couldn't get the record out of my head.

The Real Don Steele, a locally famous disc jockey at 93KHJ in Los Angeles- I can still hear the jingle for the station- played the Top 30 countdown each week. I sat by the radio, waiting to hear how this great song was doing. Over the years, I was rarely disappointed by the result as one Carpenters hit after another climbed the charts. It was years before I truly discovered FM. Why would I? Just about any time I really wanted to hear Karen, all I had to do was turn on the radio. In that regard, it was an absolutely amazing time to be a Carpenters fan.

An ad for the new Carpenters album.
Little did A&M Records - or Karen and Richard-
know this would be the beginning of a great partnership.
"Love rock" at its best.

My home in Garden Grove was a neat little community, a mix of Anglo, Hispanic, and some Asian families. In our school, we all got along pretty well. With the strawberry fields nearby and the movie theater literally over the fence from my backyard, it was a good place to live for the few years we were there. 

The annual Strawberry Festival was a pretty safe place to get into trouble, and a young Joan Jett and the Runaways had their start at the small club close by. I had a large wood-paneled bedroom with a view of our ping pong table and small pool. My personal oasis held a bean bag chair, black light posters, and most importantly, my turntable. 

Honestly, I can't remember how I heard about the Close to You album, but I can tell you that after school one day, I rode my bike to the nearby record store. That mom and pop shop off Garden Grove Blvd. near Brookhurst Street and the nearby Japanese market were two of my favorite after school destinations- that is when we weren't found at the beach or the Newport Dunes lagoon, part of the Back Bay nature reserve.

From the photo shoot for the album cover.
Richard may hate it, but I've always loved the fresh approach.

Normally, I would have played a new album in the living room on the home combination TV / Stereo, but instead, I chose to give the album a listen in the privacy of my bedroom. Little did I know this would become well worn habit, listening to each new Carpenters recording by myself and later with headphones on. It was the perfect way to soak it all in.

Time to reflect on the music...

The iconic single for which the Carpenters will always be known.

The third Carpenters single, second release from the new album, "We've Only Just Begun" opens it up. It's a great introduction to what is coming. Karen sounds as if she's singing to you. It's not the confident and deeper toned Karen showcased as with their later singles. Her reading is more tender and hopeful, quite befitting the romantic wedding tune by the prolific songwriting duo of Roger Nichols and Paul Williams. The arrangement is straight forward and smart, an uncomplicated affair with a nice clarinet piece by Doug Strawn

It is a testament to Richard's ear and his craft that he framed each number in a manner that perfectly showcased Karen's iconic vocal work. Unexpectedly, it is Richard's vocal work that equally shines, but in a very different way, as the performance leads into the chorus. His voice is strong and confident. This single is a fitting example of the partnership between brother and sister: each sibling's work makes the other's better and the end result stronger. Engaging and powerful, their soon to be signature record is a perfect length. Compact and majestic, the tune ends simply. There's a handful of songs I never tired of hearing, and this is one of them. I guess it's just the power of a great piece of music. 

Amazingly when reviewers focus on the music itself-
instead of commentary on the artists' appearance-
the reviews are overwhelmingly positive.

How do you follow up a record like that? With something totally unexpected and almost lighthearted. Love is Surrender fills the bill without being a throwaway record. This Ralph Carmichael written tune is originally spiritual in nature, but here, Richard has given it a quick lyrical rewrite to make it more accessible to a secular, radio-friendly audience. 

Surrender is a fun rhythm piece that works well in contrast to the more serious numbers found on the record. With Richard's jazz flavored piano, alternating lead vocals between he and Karen, and trumpet that punctuates the arrangement, the record is uplifting and bright. I absolutely love the feel of the song! Beyond the flip side of the Begun single, this was the first Carpenters song in which I was consciously aware of Karen's distinguished basement voice, found here in the background vocals. Just remember, I heard this album long before knowing of Ticket to Ride, either single or album. 

Richard, Karen, and their bandmates.

Maybe It's You. In retrospect, this next song brought many firsts to my mind. Of course, it was an awareness that Richard and friend John Bettis were solid songwriters and that Karen was the ultimate interpreter of their music. Her warm and intimate reading perfectly fits what they had imagined. At just 20 years of age, the song tells a story that sounds well beyond her life experience.

Secondly, the song's placement on the album revealed to me that as main architect of their records, Richard never saw an album as just a gathering of stand-alone songs. As long as he was at the helm, a Carpenters album would always be a collection of recordings that fit together as pieces of a puzzle. On this disc, the lingering piano lines of Surrender create a musical bridge that continues into this next song. Richard's ongoing commitment to his personal philosophy of the emotional and musical connectivity of songs, brought to full fruition in Christmas Portrait, became a hallmark of each subsequent release. Thus, he created an elegant, signature trademark for the duo, every bit as iconic as the group's logo which would appear on the next album. As a fan, I came to appreciate and look forward to each new album to see what artistic stamps Richard had created specifically for it.
Receiving a Grammy for the album.

After three great numbers, I could not believe a country song was coming on. A country song- really? On a pop album? Now that I've grown up a bit, I actually enjoy quite a bit of country music (Reba, George Strait, Carrie Underwood, Keith Urban, and of course Kenny Rogers, Dolly Parton, Willie Nelson, and Crystal Gayle). But back then, I didn't at all, so I couldn't see Reason to Believe as the classic it really is. Rod Stewart's version of this Tim Hardin song was not something I remotely enjoyed. Upon many repeated listenings, it eventually became a cut I truly appreciated. Karen takes to the genre with her warm slight twang, and coupled with Richard's gentle arrangement -love the strings!- and tons of background vocals, it was soon a favorite...and opened my mind a bit as well. In retrospect, I sure wish they would have recorded that rumored "all country" album.

For many years, I have stood by my opinion that, in general, trying to cover a song by the Beatles is a losing proposition for most all musical artists. There are rare exceptions (see my list here), but even for the duo I love most, it's a hit and miss situation. Help is mostly a miss, even if it is a beloved Paul McCartney / John Lennon tune. I was shocked on first listen, and it still surprises me today. It's energetic and raw. It's youthful, and it ends with an incredible organ solo. OK, maybe I like it better than I thought! Karen rocks the vocal with power and confidence, coming shy of yelling, but certainly matching the urgency of the ambitious arrangement.

I'm still glad they stopped covering the Beatles but would have loved a duet with Paul. The man was a clearly a mutual fan, (can you imagine your musical hero singing your song the first time you meet?) calling Karen, "the best female voice in the world: melodic, tuneful and distinctive."

The dramatic ending of Help perfectly frames Side One's closing number, (They Long to Be) Close to You. It's so smooth, so golden a reading, the stark contrast to the earlier tune makes it seem all the more incredible. The drums, in particular, frame her voice so well! Remember those artistic touches Richard brings to each album? The pairing of these two songs back to back demonstrates why many compilations cannot create the flow and feel of the albums from which the individual songs came. Just as we start to feel as if we know the song (and we do), the extended version jumps into our ears, giving extra emphasis to the masterpiece.

The same powerful ending of Close to You plays well in opening up Side Two with the exquisite Baby It's You. The Burt Bacharach and Mack David tune had been covered many times by many artists, including the Fab Four, but never before did it sound this stunning. I figured as with most albums of the day, once the hits were played, the rest might be filler. I couldn't have been more wrong once I turned over the record! From the very first listen, I have loved this recording, and it seems to make the cut on just about every homemade Carpenters compilation I create.

Everything a listener loves about the Carpenters can be found in this one record. Richard's incredible slow burn arrangement highlights one of the duos very best records, and Karen shows just how versatile a singer she could be. Gentle piano and oboe open it up. Karen starts tender- listen to her purr on the word "kiss"- and then she reaches down to hit those money notes we all love, and later she belts it out.  Wow! The saxophone solo by Bob Messenger is still one of the best put to record by any artist and my favorite of all those in the Carpenters library. Karen's contralto shines chocolatey rich, velvety smooth, golden as honey. Pick your favorite. They all apply.

The definitive recording screamed to be released as a smash single, but it was sandwiched between "Begun" and the later "For All We Know", forcing the suits at A&M or perhaps Richard himself to pass it by in favor of the first single from their third album. It's a shame as it's as good and memorable as any song they ever recorded. 

Next up was a song that had been covered so many times by so many different artists of several genres. I'll Never Fall in Love Again, another Bacharach tune, was most famously recorded by Dionne Warwicke (then with an "e"), becoming a Top Ten hit. As a music fan that dug into the charts and books on modern pop music history, I later discovered it actually first released as a single by Johnny Mathis. In the more than capable hands of our duo, it is an irresistible piece of ear candy. Breezy and relaxed and so much fun.

With mostly just lead vocals and a piano, Crescent Noon reminds me how powerful a stripped down "unplugged" album could be. As it stands, the choral arrangement enhances this original Carpenter / Bettis composition. In fact, this song is unlike anything else the duo ever put to tape, a bold and unique piece that unashamedly reflects their musical roots. 

Were they a duo or a group?
A&M Records couldn't seem to figure it out in the early days.

In my not always so humble opinion, even though I did not care for it at first, Mr. Guder is the weakest cut on the album. But that's not to say it's a failure. The stinging rebuke of a former manager at Disneyland, (here's a photo of Richard and John working at the park), is set against a strong melody line and creative presentation.

On the next tune, another Roger Nichols / Paul Williams number, it's Richard not Karen on the lead vocals- and he's great. Strong, confident, solid, it's a good change of pace. Many fans think I Kept on Loving You would have made a terrific single with its rhythm guitar and upbeat mood, but I believe it would have confused their identity and their focus. The era of minstrel music was passing, giving way to an emphasis on a solo vocalist. Established, beloved groups were breaking up or in process of doing so (Beatles, Simon and Garfunkel) or solo stars would quickly rise out of group environments to public acclaim (Marilyn McCoo, Michael Jackson, Donny Osmond, and David Gates). Whether or not it was the decision of the A&M executives or an issue of timing as with the non-release of Baby It's You, it was a wise choice.

Receiving the first of many gold records to come.

Last but not least, this terrific album ends with Another Song, but it's not just another ordinary song. Admittedly, it took me awhile to warm up to it once Karen's vocals leave the recording. (Is it just me or does the lyric line give a foretaste of Karen's relationship with Tom Burris?) Richard must have had a great time arranging and orchestrating this! The drums pound away while an exotic sounding flute solo goes on and on, leaving the listener waiting for what's next- until it all comes to a halt. And with it, so does the album.

If you've read through my initial reviews of their output, you might remember I ranked Horizon as the Carpenters masterpiece, the pinnacle of their recording career. In many ways, that still holds true. On the later disc, Karen sounds incredible, the absolute best and most intimate ever. Richard hits his peak as a songwriter, and the songs mostly (Postman aside) reflect a maturity and wisdom that came from years on the road- and as we'd later discover- came  with a career and personal life enduring a decent amount of stress. 

Their first major album chart hit, however, is full of youthful energy, an optimism, and an adventurous spirit that is long gone by the time Karen and Richard record Horizon five years later. Close to You is fresh, varied and iconic.  Every serious music lover should have it in their collection. Karen and Richard Carpenter may never make the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, but they don't have to. Their music defined the 1970's and remains rightfully placed in the hearts and minds of generations of fans all over the world.

A very special thanks to those folks who constructed The Complete Carpenters Recording Resource, to "Rick- An Ordinary Fool" for so many rare scans, and all my friends on the A&M Corner boards. 

My Original Carpenters album reviews:

Offering/Ticket to Ride
Close to You
A Song for You
Now & Then
The Singles 1969-1973
Live In Japan
A Kind of Hush
Live at the Palladium
The Singles 1974-1978
Christmas Portrait
Made in America
Voice of the Heart
An Old Fashioned Christmas
Time (Richard Solo)
Karen Carpenter (Solo)
As Time Goes By

My Revisited Fresh Look at the albums:

Offering / Ticket to Ride

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